Facing a historic megadrought all across the American West with no end in sight, Colorado lawmakers, looking for easy and effective ways to conserve water, set their sights on Kentucky Blue Grass.
Not just Kentucky Blue Grass but all kinds of non-native grasses planted in front lawns, back lawns, green strips fronting businesses and apartment complexes. Those lawns take up about half the water used in Colorado’s cities.
“There’s not any more water out there and what water is out there is becoming really expensive,” John Berggren, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, said. “So let’s look at how we’re using it now.”
Berggren’s organization backs a bipartisan effort at the Colorado Capitol to launch a statewide turf replacement program, which would pay homeowners and business owners to replace their non-native, ornamental lawns with plants and landscapes better adapted to the state’s dry climate.
The legislation, House Bill 1151, would be an effective way to manage demand of the state’s water, sponsoring state Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said in a late-February committee hearing. And the replacement would be entirely voluntary.
“Rather than telling people you have to, this is an opportunity for people to come in and say I’d like to,” Catlin, vice chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Water, said.
Similar programs across the West have saved billions of gallons of water, paying property owners anywhere from a few dimes to a few dollars for every square foot of turf they replace.
These types of programs, offering money for the removal of water-dependent lawns, are likely to become more common as states, counties and cities across the West search for relatively painless ways to conserve the resource, water experts told The Denver Post.
About 19 Colorado cities, utilities and water districts already have turf replacement programs. The legislation would offer matching dollars for those programs, adding to the rebate property owners would receive.
The bill would also help governments launch programs of their own. And people who live in areas without such a program could apply directly to the state for money as well.
“For too long the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains have born the brunt of water conservation,” sponsoring state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Steamboat Springs, said during the February committee meeting.
The proposal gives the metropolitan areas the chance to “play their fair part,” Roberts said.
“The same old calculus doesn’t work anymore.”
Perhaps the most common reason why grassy lawns are so common throughout Colorado and the West is because people were used to having them, Berggren said. As people moved from the east, places around the Mississippi River, places with lots of natural rainfall and plenty of water, they brought with them a certain aesthetic desire.
“They wanted that big bluegrass lawn,” Berggren said. “They wanted those parks. They wanted those green median strips. It looks good to a lot of folks.”
For decades the aesthetic wasn’t terribly problematic. The West appeared to have enough water, he said. People could take however much they wanted for their lawns.
But as time went on, climatologists and water experts began to understand that the Colorado River was over-appropriated. Then in 2002, Berggren said, a megadrought started, made worse by climate change and explosive development.
“Now, in the 21st century, we know water is more limited,” he said. “The same old calculus doesn’t work anymore.”
Most of those lawns and green strips don’t serve a purpose, Zane Marshall, director of resources and facilities for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said. They’re ornamental.
Certain green spaces like parks and sports fields are what Marshall calls functional. Turf replacement programs like the one in the Las Vegas Valley focus on nonfunctional lawns.
How much water grasses and plants might require depends heavily on geography and regional climate, Marshall said, but in Las Vegas a square foot of grass can consume 73 gallons of water every year. Replacing that grass with native plants and landscaping can cut that to 18 gallons or less.
The Las Vegas Valley has always been dry. The desert region averages just over four inches of rain a year. The people who live there take 90% of their water from the Colorado River and the rest from an underground aquifer in the area.
For generations water supply wasn’t as much of a problem, Marshall said. Most homes built in the last 30 years came with automated irrigation or sprinkler systems for their lawns. But nearing the turn of the century water became less plentiful and officials in the valley took notice.
The Water Authority launched its Water Smart Landscapes Rebate program in 1999, Marshall said, offering residents 40 cents for every square foot of lawn they were willing to replace.
The program took off.
Valley residents, apartment managers and business owners took the authority’s money and replaced their thirsty blue grasses with sedimentary rocks, Nevada agave and desert marigolds. The authority upped its rebate to $1 per square foot in 2003, then $2 in 2007.
Now the authority offers $3 per square foot up to 10,000 square feet, Marshall said. Then it offers $1.50 per square foot after that.
To date property owners in the Las Vegas Valley have removed more than 200 million square feet of turf, converting it to water-efficient landscaping, Marshall said. That amounts to something like 72,000 individual projects.
“That’s enough turf to wrap an 18-inch-wide strip of sod around the circumference of the Earth,” he said.
That translates to 11.2 billion gallons of water saved just last year, 163 billion gallons since the program started, Marshall said.
In that same time span, the valley’s population grew by 49% but the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River shrank by 26%, Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the authority, said.
A similar rebate program from Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Water District was estimated in 2015 to save up to 26 billion gallons of water each year, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In Colorado, Greeley’s turf replacement program, called Life after Lawn, is younger but still successful, said Water Conservation Manager Dena Egenhoff. Since launching in 2018 the program has helped property owners replace more than 150,000 square feet of turf, saving an estimated 32 million gallons of water.
Not only does the program save water but it also saves property owners money and their new, native plants thrive much better in Colorado’s dry climate, Egenhoff said.
“They lower their water bills, and they can still have a beautiful landscape no matter what climate conditions are now or in the future,” she said.
Castle Rock’s turf replacement program has saved millions of gallons too. According to Water Efficiency Supervisor Rick Schultz, the city has cut residential water use by 7% since starting its replacement program in 2009. Non-residential properties became eligible for the rebates a decade later and have since cut water use by about 29%, he said.
Schultz said Castle Rock doesn’t dictate how people replace their grassy lawns, but does offer a native plant database full of hundreds of options of grasses, flowers and shrubs that thrive in the high desert.
He calls it Colorado-scaping.
“We want it to look regionally appropriate,” Schultz said. “Promoting a landscape that fits the look and feel of Colorado’s Front Range.”
Some people go with Russian sage and yuccas, he said. Others go with switchgrass or Mexican feather grass.
Some don’t plant anything and instead install decks, fire pits or artificial turf putting greens, he said. So long as it uses less water, it probably qualifies.
“Some people get really creative with it,” he said.
The voluntary nature of the program takes out much of the controversy, Schultz acknowledged too.
Plus, many Coloradans are already interested, Egenhoff added. Greeley recently surveyed more than 700 people and 59% of them expressed interest in replacing their lawns and most of them cited cost as the main barrier.
Existing turf replacement programs do work but they only cover about a quarter of the state’s population, Laura Belanger, a water resources engineer with Western Resource Advocates, told lawmakers during the February committee hearing.
The statewide proposal, which would start with about $4 million, could expand those existing programs and help start new ones, Belanger said.
Representatives of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River District chimed in, supporting the measure.
Plus, this type of conservation effort can help take pressure off the agriculture industry, Catlin said.
The state’s drought contingency plan, finalized in 2019, includes a program that pays farmers not to plant crops and instead send their water downstream.
Similarly, the turf replacement program is another effective way to manage the state’s growing demand for water, Catlin said. It wouldn’t mandate the specific types of plants that could be used to replace more water-dependent lawns and instead leaves that decision to local programs.
The committee unanimously approved the proposal, referring it to the House Appropriations Committee where it is expected to be heard in the coming weeks. If the measure is enacted into law, the Colorado Water Conservation Board would have to develop a statewide turf replacement program by July 2023.
Written By Conrad Swanson, The Denver Post